Letter to a Disappointed A-level Student

A-levels don’t define you.

In fact, once you’re in your twenties and onto your second or third full time job, no potential employer is going to have even the mildest passing interest in your A-level grades.

I know, right now, that you may be disappointed with your grades. And whilst I haven’t kept up with all the gory details of the debacle of algorithms and predicted grades, I can see that many more people than usual are disappointed this year, feeling that the grade they’ve been given doesn’t reflect the work they put in or the potential they have. But while it feels dismissive to say that your A-level grades are really not that important to anyone but you, they’re really not that important to anyone but you. Sorry.

I took one A-level at school. Long story short, I went off the rails a bit in Year 12 and was asked to leave. In those days we called it being expelled, although as education was only compulsory until 16, it was really framed as a strong hint that my presence (or lack of it, since I hardly ever turned up) was disruptive and unnecessary. But I managed to negotiate being allowed to take a General Studies A-level before I left. There was no set curriculum and the exam was really a pot luck affair, but they said I could take it, so I did, and I got a B. I don’t even know if General Studies is still a thing, but in those days, it didn’t count for anything, and universities wouldn’t accept it towards UCAS points anyway. So I left school with one pointless A-level and wondered what next.

Next I went to college and studied (or again, didn’t really) for a GNVQ. Remember them? Do they still exist? Anyway, you might see a theme appearing here, but again I was asked to leave before the end of the course, and again, I managed to negotiate taking a shot at an exam (in this case an AS-level Psychology) in which I got a D. So I left college with one pretty pointless AS-level and wondered what next.

Now, I’m not going to detail my whole life in this way, because while I love talking about myself, it may get a bit boring. I’m sure anyone in their early 40s could pick out a string of failures, along with some significant successes, from their career. But one thing I’ll say is that despite my lack of A-levels I still did ok.

And before you roll your eyes, I’m not even going to make the point that plenty of people have great careers without a university education, although that is absolutely true, and becoming more so.

Because I do have a university education. In fact, I now teach at a university. I have a degree in Philosophy, a Graduate Diploma in Law, a Masters in Criminology, and I’m (hopefully more than) half way through a PhD. I also have a teaching qualification, which may well be my most unexpected achievement.

The secret? I didn’t let my lack of A-levels define me. I never thought of myself as someone without A-levels. Sure, I spent a few years working in low paid thankless jobs (yup, that was me on the end of the TV Licensing enquiry line in the late 90s). But I saw those years as experience, and a gift of time to decide what I really wanted to learn more about. And when I did decide to go to university at the ripe old age of 21, my entry was not dependent on my A-levels because I was a ‘mature student’ (oh, the jokes my Dad made about me being ‘mature’). And maybe I didn’t get into the ‘best’ university, but it was the best university for me, and I loved it (shout out to Lampeter, or whatever it’s called now).

I did law school part time in the evenings (while working a perfectly respectable and well paid full time day job) during my late 20s, and then, after too many years of a not-too-shabby career in London, I came back to Plymouth and studied my Masters in my late 30s. It may not surprise you by now, that my lack of A-levels played absolutely no part in any of the entry requirements for these qualifications.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no official timeline for life. There’s no requirement to go to university at all, but if you really want to go, then I would argue that 18 isn’t the best time to go anyway. Go and have a bit of a life first. As a university teacher, I can see that it’s the mature students who are generally doing better and getting more out of their studies. They know they’re in the right place. Too many of the younger students spend their whole 3 years worrying that they’re doing the wrong subject. And with good reason – I loved studying Philosophy but I would never have chosen it when I was 18.

So perhaps you’ve come out of this whole grades fiasco with grades that are disappointing for you. I’m not saying that’s not important or frustrating for you.

Be disappointed.

Be annoyed at the unfairness of the system.

Feel the feelings you need to feel.

But once you’ve done that, release them, pick yourself up and make another plan. If you really want to go to university, you’ll get in. Maybe not the university you first thought, or maybe not this year, but if you really want to go, you will.

The biggest successes and opportunities in my life have come from some of my biggest failures and setbacks.

A plan not working out is both an opportunity and a beginning, not a disaster or an ending.

This is your opportunity. What will you do with it?

P.S. Finding time and space to write can be challenging, but finding time and space to *think* about what you’re going to write is the far greater challenge.
Thinking Time is my regular(ish) letter about productivity, positivity, and (ugh) procrastination, and is dedicated to writers and students who want to get more (thoughtful) writing done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s